Lean organizations are learning organizations, a culture, not a technique. How do you create that culture?

Some good number of years ago I received a call from Honda America Manufacturing. To my surprise, I learned that the first plant manager of the Marysville Plant bought my book American Spirit in the Tokyo Airport waiting to move to the United States and take up his duties. He read it on the plane and concluded that “if this is what Americans believe, we can succeed in the United States.” For a number of years it then served as the text for their course on the Honda Way, taught by the Executive Vice President, Scott Whitlock to all new managers.

I am not sure that my book reflected what Americans believed then, but this coincidence did give me the opportunity to visit Honda on several occasions and learn a good bit about how their system of work, management and organization worked. They were very frank in attributing much of their own system to the Toyota Production System. This system is now commonly referred to as Lean production, lean organization or lean culture.

The most important lesson of visiting Honda is that you cannot find the explanation for their excellence in any one technique. When I first visited there the U.S. was in a frenzy over Quality Circles and its devotees were certain that it was the key to Japanese success. They were wrong. Then statistical control charts were given great credit for Japanese success. Few could be found at Honda. A dozen other simplistic explanations have been given.

The truth is that Honda and Toyota are “whole-systems” and the sub-systems of the work flow, motivation and incentive systems, training systems, organization and management levels, improvement processes, and many other factors are all components of the “whole-system.” It is a culture and all cultures are complex.

At this same time my consultants and I were practicing socio-technical systems design, the method used to create the first self-managing team plants in the United States. We took this methodology and applied it to the design of organizational system that incorporated the lessons of Honda, Toyota, Federal Express, and other great companies.

I recently attempted to describe this process on one page, inspired by the Strategy Maps of Kaplan & Norton. I know that without a great deal of explanation it is likely not fully comprehensible. But, if you have a question about it, send an email or make a comment.

Cheers, LMM
Getting lean small2